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SIGHTS AROUND TOWN : By the Book : Volumes are folded, spindled, mutilated and metamorphosed at a Thousand Oaks sculpture exhibit.

December 12, 1991|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the current traveling exhibition at the Conejo Valley Art Museum, books and things bookish have been artfully, shamelessly altered. Which is not to say that the work here only celebrates bookishness.

"Books and Bookends: Sculptural Approaches" is more about sculpture than literature, and about the will of artists to explore and unravel conventions. For purists who believe that a pipe is a pipe, an artwork is an artwork and a book is a book, the point of the exercise might be lost. What we have here is a mixed marriage of media.

Curated by Carol Barton and Henry Barrow, the show began its travels in Maryland in December of 1989 and has worked its way around the country. Included are a wide assortment of three-dimensional works--books that have been folded, spindled, mutilated and metamorphosed. There also are transformed maps, strange bookends and errata by artists hailing from all corners of the United States.

One dialectical branch of 20th-Century art, which includes collage, assemblage, Dada and conceptual art, has been intent on dissecting commonplace objects and the ideas we have about them. But as conceptual art goes, this display of book art is easily digestible, fun and often reliant on the quick prick of a pun. While it has the makings of Art Lite, it still rises above trivia.

Far from being academic or aloof, the show deals mostly in kitsch and nostalgia--a perfect choice for holiday viewing. Pop-up books help to lure children into the world of literature by rendering more vivid the contents of a book. These three-dimensional artworks similarly create new ways of making books.

Edin Velez's enigmatic "Transition Event" is, in fact, a xerographic pop-up book, plain and simple, but with turn-of-the-century graphic imagery, melded surreally. The pages of "A Peep Show Alice," by Maryline Poole, fans out accordion-like to reveal 3-D images inside the peepholes. Curator Barton's own "Everyday Road Signs" follows a similar notion, extending a folded map to create a view of a road with depth.

The pieces range from the sublime to the audacious, from the immediate to the circumspect. With "The Cruel Book," James Bailey translated the bed-of-nails idea to book form, using a cover festooned with dangerous spikes. On the other hand, David Horton's "Luminous Perceptions" is, true to the title, an elegant display of mystical abstractions.

Puns, those lowbrow literary emanations we all know and love/hate, might well be an innate foible of the bookish artist. There are plenty of shameless puns around the gallery. Carl A. Potter's "Bookworms" are coiled, wormlike metal bookends. Jane Freeman's "Flat Beer" is a double whammy--a volume of smashed beer cans that have been bound together, book-like.

Some artists have dealt with the specific physical aspects of books. The simplest piece, and yet one of the craftiest, is Scott McCarney's "Book Rate," a bound book consisting of the thick cardboard you'd find in a book box. Completing the process, he actually sent it through the mail to the curator.

Three Santa Barbarans are represented in the sampling. Elena Siff, the masterful miniaturist, created "The Fortune Book" from Chinese cookie fortunes embellished with decorative frills. At the bottom is a touch of self-deprecating wit in the form of a micro-book called "How to Distrust Novelties" (good advice as you walk through the gallery).

Pamela Zwehl-Burke's "RSHR PRZNR" ("rush hour prisoner") addresses the mayhem of traffic via distorted maps and traffic jam snapshots. "The Bridge," by Kristin Otte, illustrates a poem about traffic and sexuality with a literal bridge cut and folded from the midst of two pages in a book.

Notable by his exclusion is Steven Cortright, the accomplished collagist and book artist who taught at UC Santa Barbara for 20 years and died last year of cancer. Cortright's witty and wise book works were featured in a one-man show at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art a few years ago.

"The Music Box," by JoAnna Poehlmann, is one of the more endearing miniatures on display. Its long accordion-folded text, on which music-related postage stamps are matched to relevant quotes, fits neatly into a small music box that plays "As Time Goes By."

Her quotes sample the high and the low of culture--like the show, come to think of it. Quoth Martin Luther: "Music is a discipline, and a mistress of order and good manners; she makes the people milder and gentler, more moral and more reasonable." Sez George Gershwin: "I feel a song coming on."

At its best, "Books and Bookends" dislodges preconceptions we have about books and transports us to another mind state where traditional books--containers with bound pages--are not allowed. But you can't get there by glancing casually. Stocked as it is with small, cleverly encoded pieces, the gallery requires a close-up view.

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